Resources: Tips for Healthy Aging at Hebrew SeniorLife

How to Understand Foot Ailments

Getting a foothold on understanding pain and disability

Focus your thoughts on your feet for a moment. How do they feel? Maybe they ache a little from standing too long, or they're throbbing from running or hiking. Perhaps you're nursing a painful bunion or a nagging callous or corn.

Now consider all that your feet are designed to do. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, they get you where you want to go. The distance many people walk in a lifetime would take them around the globe nearly six times! Your feet provide the anchor and balance crucial to physical activity. As engineering marvels, the intricate structures that make up the feet include one quarter of all the bones in the human skeleton.

Yet, when it comes to pain, our feet often suffer benign neglect. Foot pain is a common complaint, but, more often than not, we just consider it a nuisance that comes from overexertion, ill-fitting shoes, or age. In fact, researchers have paid little attention to just how prevalent foot pain is, what causes it, and how it affects overall health.

Epidemiologist Marian T. Hannan, D.Sc., M.P.H., of the Institute for Aging Research of Hebrew SeniorLife, is changing that. She says that foot ailments are not adequately considered as the root cause of disability that limits the activity of many older adults. Most researchers have focused on knee and hip pain as the precursors to disability that makes it difficult for many seniors to maintain independence. For several years, Dr. Hannan and her team of investigators have been gathering information that should give the medical community a better "foothold" on understanding the significance of foot pain.

Foot Disorders, Pain and Physical Disability

Dr. Hannan's logic goes something like this: Not all, but many conditions that affect the feet result in pain. An individual in pain has difficulty walking, moves around less and less or at best improperly, and puts stress on other areas like the knees or hips. Even if a foot disorder does not produce pain, it may still affect balance and gait in such a way as to impact other joints. This person is now well on the way to eventual disability if the foot disorder and, when necessary, the associated pain are not treated. Furthermore, the first step to establishing the link between foot pain and disability is to understand how prevalent foot pain is among seniors, where it is most often located, and what conditions cause it. Dr. Hannan believes this information has important public health implications.

As scientists like Dr. Hannan and her colleagues learn more about foot pain, it might make sense to give your feet a little more consideration. Put vanity aside and go for comfort when choosing shoes. Pay attention to aches and pains. Seek diagnosis and treatment.

There is wisdom in the song we all learned as children, "the shin bone's connected to the knee bone and the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone. . ." Addressing pain at the ground level may well keep us active in old age.

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